First Letter From London


This is the first of the six letters Jorge de Sena wrote over his first visit to London. They were broadcast weekly, by the BBC during the Portuguese Language Program, from October 17 to November 28, 1952, and despite the unfortunate loss of the original recordings, the text was preserved and published in the book England Revisited (Calouste Gulbenkian, 1986). In this letter, the poet describes the joy of arriving at London as the realization of "one of the greatest dreams" of his life. It's a softer, lighter Jorge de Sena, a happy traveller, years before the travels of his exile. 

Even if it be for just a few days, and during those days for just a few scant hours that I am free, entirely free, to walk here at my leisure, I have now realized one of the greatest dreams of my life: to step on English soil and see London with my own eyes. For years on end, while others have dreamed of the “spiritual capital” or the “city of lights”, I have dreamed about this somber and brilliant, severe and pompous, black and red, dirty and foggy city where so many people I admire have lived and so many figures of novels whom I love (the latter living more intensely in me than the former). My first contact with England did not occur in Dover nor in Southampton nor in London’s airport where, in fact, the plane was destined to land. I contacted England for the first time in a BOAC plane, then in Lisbon, and touched down on English soil in Hurn – I believe it to be a tiny city on the southern coast of Great Britain in whose airport the plane was forced to land at about four in the morning in the fog and cold because… but how could it be? – fog in London!… Bournemouth seemed like a summer residence to me, pleasant, large and tree-lined, with a big hotel that reminded me of a modernized 1900 that nowadays springs up serenely all over the globe. Here I had may breakfast together with several companions of this aeronautical adventure.

From Bournemouth to London I had the chance to catch a glimpse (as much as is possible from the train window), of English country-side and its provincial cities. The fog was thick, but charmingly lit from within by a morning sun that looked like a rose-colored balloon. We passed too by calmly ondulating fields where trees rise and grow like loved-ones looking more secure in life than they would in a public garden in Portugal. We passed by urban centers, all alike, with the same chimneys – a sameness of indifference in which the houses turned from the outside inwardly to where the people lived their lives. In the middle of fields next to delicately plowed plots, small, smokey industrial sites rose in number and in size from time to time only to dissolve afterwards into fields of pasturing cows that looked more like pets. And, at last, came Waterloo Station – vast and stretching into the distance – where the train entered as if on muffled feet, exactly how it had so speedily crossed on noiseless lines that seemed cushioned and subreptitious. The train brought me from Bournemouth to Waterloo station and I entered London as if I had come by boat heading from Southampton. And then I crossed – with a ridiculous feeling perhaps – the Westminster Bridge and there, just like in photography, rose before me Big Ben and the Houses of Parliament. As a matter of fact, something rather strange happened to me. Anything that resembles architectonic “pastiche” affects me badly and the more gothic it is, the more sick I get. In London, however, the atmosphere, the dirtiness, the light give everything from the most absurd and imitative monument to the most delicate master-piece, such as Henry the Seventh’s Chapel in Westminster Abbey, the same look of solemn and discrete charm. All in such a way that if, on the one hand, a certain taste of the old is lost, which, nevertheless, London provides at any given moment (to the point of there being small plaques that announce on any given wall that there once stood on that site an inn that disappeared in 1666!…), on the other hand a curious mix of unity and dignity is gained in which gothic, neo-classical, modern-pure-1900-bad taste and Downing Street styles blend in the most unusual harmony so that we move about these streets exactly as if at home: preoccupied, absorbed, almost distracted. And yet this here is so different! From the appearance of the houses to the measured, affable assurance of the most humble passer-by, one senses the reserved and insular humanity of this people that placed on the Royal Exchange the following ironic epigraph: “The earth is the Lord’s an the fullness thereof”. I traipsed through some streets of the city between bank-like colonnades and narrow, ancient buildings with steep stairways and solicitor’s offices – leftovers from some of Dickens’ scenes. In the evening I went to Waterloo Bridge. I saw Cleopatra’s Needle as well as the memorials of numerous people almost all from Queen Victoria’s era. I saw the solitary and grandiose St. Paul’s Cathedral in the middle of an area devastated by the last war. An aesthete could almost say that so much destruction was meant to unearth the perspective of a giant cupola for the purpose of rivalling St. Peter’s in Rome. There are still many signs in London of the tragic years of the war: isolated main walls, nebulous places in the middle of densely built-up zones, since the construction of residential neighborhoods was chosen over the reconstruction of buildings for commercial enterprises. Yet so many signs of the war are not so markedly visible as they are discrete with the same modest reserve of the man on the bus who lowered his eyes while informing that “Yes”, those were indeed bombarded areas. I passed Buckingham Palace with its guilded railings freshly painted in preparation for the coronation ceremonies and I saw the eternal, small crowd waiting to catch a glimpse of the Changing of the Guard; I saw Oxford Street, Picadilly, the Strand, and Regent Street: all so promenadishly wide and winding; streets upon streets, passages upon passages leading out from everywhere and all with the same look of being the most natural thing in the world; the victorian bric-a-brac look that has taken over the façades of this land of poets and bankers: and façades ten times the size of the Parthenon. I also walked through Lincoln’s Inn where the lawn is reserved for members but charges nothing to enter, and of course, I had the indispensable pleasure of going through the red and black brick of winding Portugal Street that ends in Kingsway and begins at Dickens’ Old Curiosity Shop. Furthermore, all these streets and all these squares share an urbanistic freedom that characterizes so well the coordinated individualism that made and continues to make England’s noble spirit. The squares are not regular and the circuses are elliptical; in Trafalgar Square can be seen Nelson’s magnificent perch in the middle of a number of bronze gentlemen either sitting or standing and doing the most unexpected things amidst the lakes and balustrades. Although the roads wind about and the squares don’t center there is nevertheless a coordination like that of a delicate puzzle for which the London fire certainly contributed by designing a few of its pieces. It is a centuries-old puzzle dating from the time of Queen Elizabeth, Sir Walter Raleigh and Shakespeare or the days of Charles the Second and his wife: the Portuguese queen who must have been overwhelmingly respectable here during the era of St. James’ Court. Because there is in this land a very natural, civilized simplicity that observes nothing that other people do since no one does anything thinking that others are watching. Yet it is a mistake to believe that people, in fact, don’t notice. Sometimes they are doing nothing but watching. London, however, is so large, one can be so quickly so far away in a rhythmic procession of vehicles going at and not exceeding 40 kilometers per hour (and with lanes for pedestrians armed with the right to sovereignly halt traffic with a gesture!) that nothing really matters. Or rather, for the distracted and self-conscious continental, there are things that matter very much: the traffic, for example, which goes absolutely the opposite way, on the left, with extremely comfortable taxis that are so old-fashioned that no self-respecting pedant in Lisbon would be caught dead coming out of one of them by the Chiado. Also, for example, the delicate way the English have of thanking one another for any and everything: the one who pays for something and the one who receives the money thank each other; the one who offers something and the one who accepts it thank each other; the one who steps on someone and the one who is stepped on thank each other. I saw all this immediately at the airport when the customs officer thanked me for the information I gave him that he had requested of me. And all the passengers, fatigued after a comfortable trip, though interrupted by stops, waited at four in the morning for an hour for this cerimony of simple exchange of graciousness to begin. And because this was a case of an emergency, of course the passengers accepted it as such. Naturally, the installations – and these gave me my first introduction to England – had from the very beginning been meant to be temporary. They were no doubt an aerodrome dating from the last war. The hut however, was so well arranged, so simply comfortable, so unaffectedly natural and decorated with paintings that revealed a provincial taste, that nothing would stand in the way of someone remaining there and waiting no matter how long he would inevitably have to wait anyway. I felt there both alive and in force an unfailing dignity which are the hall-mark of England. And what happened to me next was an extraordinary and consoling experience for me. We were all headed on our way for Bournemouth on the roads with the night and the fog before us. A rabb
i and his wife were asleep with ages of expectation, he with his black, curly beard, she with her travel-worn shawl. Suddenly, at a curve in the road, some red lights and a sign appeared. A very large sign read: “PLEASE SLOW. MEN WORKING”. What this implies is that the driver is not warned of the danger of falling into a ditch. He is rather politely requested to watch for what is more precious and worthy of respect: men working. Could there be a nobler example of the greatness of a country and its people, an extreme, intransmissable greatness which nonetheless pervades, overwhelms and makes us irresistibly their own?

* in: England Revisited (1986)